December 13, 2009
"Do Not Be Afraid" by Brenda Seat
Several years ago at this time of year we here at Seekers were waiting with great anticipation. A child was coming into our world at Christmas.
Margreta and Jeffrey had left or were going to leave for Guatemala and they were in the final steps of becoming parents. We, in Seekers, but especially those of us who were in mission group with Margreta had heard the step by step process that they were going though in order to adopt a child. Sometimes it was agonizing as paperwork got mislaid or mishandled, but other times it was joyous like when we were able to see a picture of the child who was coming. It was Oslin! At the time we wondered, "How will this coming child change Margreta and Jeffrey’s life?" "How will having a baby among us, change us?" A child was coming! And then, something I will never forget, that moment on Christmas Eve when Margreta and Jeffrey and Oslin got off the elevator just as we were getting ready to begin our Christmas Eve Dinner! It was the "holy family" made visible!
And the transformation that we had all anticipated would come with this child, so long and earnestly loved into being, was there in the faces of Margreta and Jeffrey.
It was one of those brief and shining moments where the holy connects with us and is incarnate among us.
Advent is a time of waiting the liturgical gurus tell us, but I always get a little cranky when they say that. Waiting seems so passive to me. Aren’t we anticipating? Advent is the other bookend to Lent, where we are invited again to consider the impact of God’s indwelling among us, but unlike Lent where we are encouraged to give something up, or take on a practice that encourages our reflection, in Advent we are curiously left without a structure. We are just waiting. And of course singing Oh Come, Oh Come, Emanuel…
Over the years as I change the crèche every Sunday in Advent I have noticed that much of that indwelling, in the story of the birth of Jesus is prefaced with the sentence, DO NOT BE AFRAID!
The message to Elizabeth begins with "Do Not Be Afraid," the message to Mary about the coming Child begins with "Do Not Be Afraid," the message to Joseph begins with "Do Not Be Afraid," the message to the shepherds begins with "Do Not Be Afraid," and although the wise men do not get that message they were fearless anyway and followed a star when they didn’t even know where it was leading them!
"Do not be afraid," the angels say.
Fear is a good thing if you need to react quickly to something. The adrenaline rush, the instinct to fight or flight are reactions that have saved many of our ancestors and without which we as a species probably would not have survived! But I have noticed and maybe you have too, that I am more and more being invited to be afraid. To be afraid about not buying the right "in" present for Christmas, or being afraid of losing my health insurance if the "right" choices aren’t made by Congress. More often than not, in our popular culture we are being encouraged to change our lives based on fear. Advertising and other elements of our culture have learned that fear is a powerful motivator and as the competition for our attention and our concern has grown, more and more we are invited to be afraid so that we will listen to the messages that compete for our time and attention.
Fear is a powerful motivator, but the longer it is sustained the more negative effects it has on the body and on our emotional health. Adrenaline sustained too long can begin to weaken the muscles, especially the heart. Sustained too long it can cause sleeplessness, fatigue, depression and other more serious psychological issues. In Fear Proofing Your Life, the author says that fear is a reaction that is only supposed to get us through a short difficult incident; to provide a short burst of energy, and quick thinking to help us negotiate an obstacle in our path – a snake in the road, a car that seems to be drifting into your lane on the highway; but not for sustained periods of time.
But fear gets our attention, and fear is a huge motivator and so we are and will continue to be invited to be afraid by the culture in which we live.
"Do Not Be Afraid," the angels say to us during this season…
When we are afraid we tend to get smaller. Smaller in that we only see what is immediate, what is in our way, and we tend to be less patient, less generous, and less willing to see things from any other perspective than our own. We are small, vulnerable and we feel the urgency to move in fight or flight regardless of whether that means powering over others or not.
John the Baptist understood this. When the people asked how they would know who was living as God wanted, he said that the man with two cloaks should share one with a person who had none, tax collectors should collect only what they were entitled to collect, and soldiers should not extort people but be satisfied with their pay. He was addressing fear and its corrupting smallness in their lives. His message was, "there is enough, God is with us, you can afford to be generous." He wanted them to move beyond the fear that kept them from seeing those in need around them, and to see for themselves what myopia of vision it had created so that they did not even see the hurt and displacement they were causing in others in their effort to placate their own fear.
Is there enough? If we thought in terms of generosity and of love how would we frame the big issues of our day? How would we work with people around the globe around climate change, or health care or in our own lives where fear has been our motivation?
If we weren’t afraid would we get anything done?
The angels say Do Not Be Afraid!
Recently, on the show Grey’s Anatomy (for those who don’t know or don’t watch it is a doctor drama on TV) a radiologist who had been working in the hospital for sometime is looking at a series of head scans showing a large inoperable tumor in the brain. The neurological surgeon joins him and looks at the scans and says, "This is an inoperable tumor and the patient has only a short time to live." The radiologist said, "Yes, I know. These are my slides and every other doctor I have been seen has said the same thing. But I’d like you to see what you can do. I know you. You are the best surgeon that I know, and the reason that you are the best surgeon is because when you are confronted with something impossible you become inspired by your fear. So let my case inspire you!"
Letting our fear inspire us….
The angels say, "Do not BE Afraid."
As I was writing this sermon I realized that my husband, Keith, has been letting his fear inspire him this past year. As many of you know Keith’s efforts in setting up a business relationship with an organization in Canada who does mediation in a novel and different way became an endless saga with many obstacles, twists and turns and much drama!
Through it all I was wringing my hands and saying to anyone who would listen, "I don’t know why Keith is doing this! It is so unlike him to take these kinds of risks. If I was the one engaged in these negotiations he would have told me to get out fast and run the other way!"
But I think that Keith was being inspired by his fear – His fear of losing a chance to make a bigger difference, his fear of not being able to tap into the skills and vision that he had for himself unless he had this bigger platform and maybe there is much more, but that is his story to tell and not mine.
The reality however is that being inspired by fear is expansive, not cautious. Confronting our fears, embracing them or being inspired by them makes us bigger people – more generous, more open, more willing to let others in, more willing to listen deeply. And for those of us who are watching this it can be deeply disconcerting because the person who is inspired by their fear may not be the person we know or recognize. They have begun to act out of a deeper place, the place where the Holy can connect in a deeper way to become incarnate among us.
"Do Not Be Afraid," the angels say.
Isaiah says "God is my deliverer, I am confident and unafraid for the Lord is my refuge and defense…"
Before the journey began for Margreta and Jeffrey to find Oslin, there were many heartaches. There were losses and much grief. The decision to adopt came out of that sorrow, and I am sure there was fear – fear of the unknown, fear about how this would all turn out, fear because they had little control of the outcome.
Fear dwells where we have little control.
The angels say, "Do not be afraid."
In thinking about Advent, where we live through the waiting of Elizabeth who was pregnant in her old age, or of Mary who was pregnant at a very young age, or of Joseph who was beginning a family a little ahead of schedule; these stories are of people who were confronted with things that were not in their control. In each case they were caught up in something unplanned and not necessarily of their choosing, and surely they were afraid. We know at least that Joseph had some doubts on the matter, and as for Mary, she pondered them in her heart.
One of my favorite Christmas songs is by Kathy Matea and is called "Mary, did you know?" We usually put this in the CD player and it is one of the CDs that stays in even as we change the others out. (You will hear it during the offertory.) The haunting melody, the simplicity of the questions it asks are probably why we keep playing it again and again:
Mary, did you know that your baby boy would someday walk on water?
Mary did you know the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again?
Mary did you know this sleeping child that you’re holding is the great "I am"?
The angels say, "Do not be afraid."
I am often most afraid of the things that I feel I have no control over, the things on which I can have little impact or where I feel powerless.
As many of you know I don’t "get" silent retreat. This last silent retreat was one of the worst I have ever had. Now I consider myself to be a fairly intelligent, fairly conscious person who is pretty competent. What I really fear is failure, and I fail pretty badly at silent retreat. I think silent retreat is a metaphor for me – a metaphor for working with my fear.
Looking at this from my perspective we at Seekers take Silent Retreat as a discipline quite seriously. In all the years that I have been here it is not one of the things that we were willing to let go of, modify or change. We have been willing to switch from 12 week courses to 6 week courses in the School of Christian Living, we have been willing to create a members’ membership statement for those not ready to move to Stewards, and we have made other changes to things that were core to us and to our way of being together, but not Silent Retreat.
Now of course it is stupid for me to be upset or worried about this, I know that, but fear is not rational, is it? Fear is reptilian, and corrosive, and it keeps gnawing away at what you know to be true and twists it. We never wake up in the middle of the night with joyful thoughts! No, it is always the worries, the concerns the fears that stay with us at 3:00 in the morning!
So the final straw for me was at breakfast on Sunday morning. (Isn’t that interesting… I had made it almost through and then I lost it.) I had to leave the table and went running to my room and cried and cried. I felt like such a failure. OK, so I really wasn’t a failure, right? But in that moment, in that time, fear had enveloped me and I truly thought I was a failure. And I said as much to Kate and Jane, who let me get it off my chest, even though we were supposed to be silent.
A week later I told Marjory that it was the failure, the fact that I have tried and tried and still don’t "get" silent retreat that made me so upset and it was the fear that I was unworthy of being here among you because of that failure that really brought me to tears. It made me realize that I have some inner work to do. The work I need to do is about needing to feel needed, needing your good opinion of me, my need to have you value me. To not be seen as a failure. But this is not about me and like Paul who needed the "thorn in his flesh" to keep him from thinking it was all about him, I have my own "thorn in my flesh," that keeps me grounded in that bigger reality, that makes me realize that your love and good opinion of me is not about what I do at all, but what God does in and around and through me. And that my competence and intelligence and all the things that I value often get in the way of what God is really trying to do.
I learned that I need to value what I fear most…and that needs to be my Advent discipline.
The angels say, "Do not be afraid."
I love the reflection piece that we have been using during this season. I know that little girl as if she were myself. How else can we react to the good news that God is present among us?
Zephaniah says, "The Lord your God is with you and is mighty to save. God will take great delight in you, quiet you with God’s love and rejoice over you with singing."
That is quite a promise, and it makes me want to dive into the sofa cushions myself!
The angels say, "Do not be afraid!"
This is the Good News that indwells among us and for that very reason we can say, JOY TO THE WORLD!